The Law School Authority

Medellin v. Texas Case Brief

Summary of Medellin v. Texas
Citation: 552 U.S. 491 (2008)

Relevant Facts: Jose Ernesto Medellin, a Mexican citizen, was tried and convicted of rape and murder by a Texas court. Mr. Medellin confessed to raping and murdering two teenage girls along with several other members of his gang, having bragged about his crime only hours after brutally killing the teens. Following his arrest by Texas authorities, he was issued the standard Miranda warnings and waived his rights before confessing. He was not, however, informed of his right to contact the Mexican consulate, a right guaranteed to foreign nationals accused of crimes under the terms of the Vienna Convention. Medellin appealed his conviction, claiming that Texas authorities had violated his rights under international law, specifically citing the Geneva Convention. During the pendency of his various domestic appeals, the International Court of Justice ruled that Medellin and other Mexican nationals convicted of crimes had their rights violated when authorities failed to allow them consular access and inform them of that right. That Court directed the United States to review such cases, notwithstanding general prohibitions that would otherwise restrict their appeals. During a lengthy and complicated appeals process, his conviction was affirmed by Texas Appellate Courts, his federal habeas petition similarly failed to overturn his conviction, the Supreme Court agreed to hear his case, the President intervened and directed Courts to review cases of defendants similarly situated (by ordering the Department of Justice to instruct states to review such cases and issuing a Memorandum to that effect), and finally, his appeal found its way back to the Supreme Court when all other options had been exhausted.

Issue: Is a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) directly enforceable in domestic courts, both State and Federal? Did the President’s Memorandum independently authorize review of state convictions, either in the absence of state laws affording relief or in direct conflict with rules governing perfection of a proper appeal?

Holding: No, the ruling of the ICJ is not directly enforceable unless Congress acts specifically to authorize the Courts to enforce such decisions or unless the terms of the authorizing treating had been self-executing. No, the President’s Memorandum did not authorize review of this case under the traditional standards for evaluating Executive authority inherent in the Constitution or pursuant to acts of Congress.

Reasoning: Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, explained that decisions of the ICJ (the Avena decision pertaining to this case) are not directly enforceable as domestic law in state court. While international law to which the United States is a signatory, and decisions of the ICJ, are binding on the United States, such obligations and decisions are not automatically binding on domestic courts absent authorizing legislation or self-executing language in the applicable treaties. In the Optional Protocol at issue here for the ICJ, the relevant language applicable to U.N. Member states is “undertakes to comply,” indicating anticipation of further action by political branches of those members. Furthermore, the sole remedy for refusal to comply with ICJ decisions afforded is referral to the U.N. Security Council, indicating that the remedy created was diplomatic rather than judicial. Chief Justice Roberts also placed this interpretation within the history of the Court’s decisions regarding treaty interpretation, concluding that the Court routinely looked to the language of the treaty itself to determine whether the President and Congress intended for the treaty to be self-executing. The Court also considered the arguments in light of what other member states had done and the nature of treaties themselves, concluding that other nations interpreted the provisions at issue similarly and those treaties are generally ratified in light of existing domestic law absent clear intentions to the contrary. Finally as to the first question presented, the majority explained that while international judgments are generally enforceable, parties are not entitled to conjunctive relief binding parties or sovereign states- including their respective courts. Next, the Court considered the grant of authority in the President’s Memorandum, concluding that the President lacked the authority to independently require state court review of specific cases in light of international law and foreign policy considerations. Chief Justice Roberts evaluated this case under the traditional test for executive authority announced by Justice Jackson in Youngblood. Presidents, the Court explained, are entitled to the greatest deference when acting with the express authorization of Congress, relying on inherent authority and that delegated by Congress. Next, lesser deference is required when the President acts in the absence of any Congressional action on the subject. Finally, the President’s justification for action is at its weakest when acting contrary to express Congressional action, when the executive must rely not only on inherent and Constitutional authority, but be able to justify exclusive ability to act on the subject. In this case, Presidential action falls into the third category, as Congress did not adopt a self-executing treaty and through that failure implied refusal to allow the President to execute the treaty. Evaluating each possible justification for independent executive action, the Court found each unpersuasive. Chief Justice Roberts concluded that Presidential authority to settle international disputes is relatively limited and cannot stretch to ordering decided cases reopened. The majority was similarly unconvinced that the President had authority to enforce treaty obligations in the absence of Congressional authorization, or that enforcing treaties came within the general power to assure the laws be faithfully executed.

Dissent/Concurrence: Justice Stevens concurred in the judgment only, writing separately to point out both that he found the case much closer than the majority indicated and that he recognized the importance of many of the considerations pointed out by the dissent. He concluded that while the President could not legislate unilaterally, and the Court should have been more willing to consider whether the applicable treaties were self-executing, further legislative action was still required. Justice Stevens also indicated that Texas courts, like other state and federal courts, should work to review the concerns of the ICJ in applicable cases, just as Congress should act to assure that the United States fulfilled its obligations. Justice Brayer, joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg, dissented. In a lengthy opinion, the dissenters grounded their position in the Supremacy Clause, arguing both that treaties were the supreme law of the land binding on all courts and that the relevant treaties were, in fact, self-executing and therefore did not require additional legislative or executive action to enable Courts to comply with international demands. Appealing to historical example, Justice Breyer argued in favor of a strong presumption that treaties be interpreted as self-executing, and therefore creates a direct and enforceable obligation on courts. Lamenting the result in this case, the dissenters concluded by pointing out that the President attempted to comply with international obligations, and the absence of direct and specific Congressional action should not close off the possibility of compliance with important international obligations.

Conclusion: The Court concluded that further Congressional action was required to enable Courts to comply with the specific treaty obligations relevant to this case. Presidential action alone is insufficient to authorize or compel Courts to alter otherwise binding domestic rules in order to satisfy the dictates of an ICJ determination.

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